Puerto Rico is still dealing with the devastating effects of Hurricane Maria nearly 16 months after the deadly Category Four storm slammed ashore the island that’s home to 3.2 million Americans. In 2017, Puerto Rico had 710 homicides — more per capita than any U.S. state. Last year, the number dropped to 641 but so far this year, 22 people have been murdered on the island, reports CBS News’ David Begnaud.
In San Juan last Sunday, gunfire erupted in an area frequented by tourists near the airport. A gunman killed someone in the middle of the street and opened fire again as he drove away. The next day, a driver pulled up to two brothers and opened fire in broad daylight. On Wednesday, a gunman walked up to a man in his car at a gas station in Dorado and killed him at 8:40 in the morning.
Kayra Nieves Pearson walked with us through the tourist area of Condado where she used to live.
“It’s not even perception. It’s literally – it’s my husband getting held up at gunpoint. It’s my mom getting carjacked. You know, it’s everybody that I love has been a victim and it’s happened here,” Pearson said.
Douglass Leff is the top FBI official in Puerto Rico; he said the island is facing a crisis of violence. According to Leff, “pretty close to 100 percent” of homicides on the island are gang related. He said the motives behind most every killing are money, survival and drugs.
“They could send the entire FBI down here and they would still be overworked. That’s just the situation that we have here,” Leff said.
Colonel Michelle Fraley was the superintendent of the Puerto Rico police in 2017 during Hurricane Maria. Fraley said that you can now go to a precinct and sometimes find only one police officer. She asked one of CBS News’ armed security guards to escort her to our interview because she doesn’t go outside after 6 p.m.
“Personally, at night, I don’t leave my house. Unless it’s an emergency that I have to go to the hospital,” Fraley said.
To start fixing what’s going on, Fraley said the government needs to “set priorities.”
“A couple of weeks ago, half a million dollars were taken out of the salary account from the police department and moved to the fire department,” Fraley said.
Veteran Puerto Rico police officer Julio Cintron Hernandez is planning to resign in June.
“Who is going to work in a place that you’re going to risk your life for everybody and you don’t have no benefits? No money. They don’t pay extra hours. They don’t pay overtime,” Hernandez said.
For now, he is using his paid time off to work at a warehouse in Florida.
“I’m talking about thousands of coworkers, they’ve been resigning and they’ve been jumping to the United States to find some work, decent work with benefits,” Hernandez said.
Sergeant Gregorio Matias, who represents one of seven police unions in Puerto Rico, said 10,000 officers have left the force in the last 10 years. He said the officers who are still serving are demoralized, overworked and underpaid.
Just last week, a police officer went into a bank and took a hostage, saying he wanted to send a message. No one was hurt.
Puerto Rico’s secretary of public safety, Héctor Pesquera, told CBS News he does not believe there is a crisis of violence in Puerto Rico at this time. He pointed out that crime is down this year and acknowledges police deserve better retirement and economic benefits
However, he did say they face some restrictions with the fiscal control board that are controlling the budget and that makes their daily operations almost impossible.